Canadians are awash in toxic chemicals -- and it is costing our health care system up to $9.1 billion and 1.5 million hospital days annually, according to a new study led by University of British Columbia Trudeau Scholar David Boyd.
The research is the first to measure the magnitude of adverse health effects caused by exposure to environmental hazards such as air pollution, pesticides, dioxins, heavy metals, flame retardants and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) for Canada.
Published online in the journal Environmental Research, the study estimates that environmental pollutants cause as many as 25,000 deaths, 24,000 new cases of cancer and 2,500 low birth-weight babies in Canada every year.
The findings highlight Canada’s weak environmental health regulations, says Boyd, a PhD Candidate in UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES), who co-authored the paper with the University of Alberta’s Dr. Stephen Genuis.
“In our cultural DNA, we think of Canada as a pristine nation, but this is at odds with our track record on the environment,” says Boyd, an environmental lawyer who worked with the David Suzuki Foundation earlier this month to call for a national environmental health strategy.
“Our environmental record ranks 28th among the 30-country Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),” Boyd adds. “When faced with a choice between protecting the environment or polluting industries, we continue to protect industries.”
Using recent public health data, Boyd and Genuis calculated Canada’s environmental burden of disease (EBD) -- the morbidity and mortality caused by exposure to environmental hazards -- in four categories: respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer and congenital afflictions.
“We focused on these diseases because there is strong evidence connecting them to environmental contaminants,” says Boyd, “but also because there isn’t adequate data to study EBD for many other illnesses -- Canada lags behind other nations in monitoring the public for exposures to toxic substances.”
The authors used a methodology developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in partnership with 100 leading environmental health, epidemiology and toxicology experts. The methodology relies on a combination of comparative risk assessment and expert judgment to estimate the proportion of health conditions that can be attributed to environmental hazards exposure.
Quantifying the EBD is an important endeavor, says Boyd, because it highlights the magnitude of environmental harm and can help to direct research, assist physicians in providing advice to patients, and guide health and environmental policy-making.
The WHO recently estimated that environmental hazards cause roughly one quarter of the total EBD globally.
Boyd recommends that Canada develop a comprehensive national environmental strategy, including stronger environmental standards for air quality, drinking water, food and consumer products. He also says Canada needs to invest more resources in research, public education, health tracking, and the development of greener technologies.
“Sweden, for example, is light years ahead of Canada so that would be a good place to start,” Boyd says. “They have the substitution principle, whereby if there is a safer chemical available, there is legal obligation to use the safer one.”
Primary sources of health data used for the study include the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Statistics Canada, Health Canada, Canadian Lung Association, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, Canadian Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute of Canada.
Cite This Page: